"What's going on with this conference about online child pornography?" asked my friend, who tries to keep up with Net news but is nowhere near as obsessed with it as, say, I am.
This week's Washington conference -- called the Internet/Online Summit: Focus on Children -- is, of course, not about child pornography, for the most part, but about ways to "protect" children on the Net. It's also about the technology industry's effort to protect itself from the threat of more censorship laws like last year's Communications Decency Act, which the Supreme Court struck down in June. And it's about politicians trying to protect themselves from having to take a clear stand one way or another on thorny questions of free speech online.
But the "child porn" mistake is understandable, given the quality of coverage this issue typically receives. From the earliest days of media discussion of what was once quaintly called "cybersex," the drumbeat of demands to hide lewd images from the innocent eyes of minors has always been accompanied by an outcry against the distribution of actual "kiddie porn" -- which has long been a serious crime whether it is pursued in person, by mail or on the Internet.
Of course, in the mouths of radio and TV newscasters, the distinction between "children and pornography online" and "child pornography online" easily evaporates. And it's even easier to lose track of the difference when politicians join in, as has been happening this week.
Participants in the Washington summit fall into three camps. Civil libertarians (like the members of the new Internet Free Expression Alliance) are intent on preventing the passage of new censorship laws and exposing the sometimes comical limitations of private-sector software filters. Conservative groups -- like Donna Rice Hughes' Enough is Enough -- want to see tough policies and laws that will punish anyone caught distributing indecent material to minors. And the technology industry -- represented here by a coalition of big companies like Microsoft, Disney and America Online -- keeps promising to provide better tools for parents to screen undesirable Web sites from their children's eyes, if only the government would lay off.
No one has ever suggested that actual child pornography makes up more than the most minuscule fraction of the porn available online. (A larger fraction of porn sites sport labels like "Teen Sluts" and "Barely Legal" that are more marketing gimmicks than trustworthy barometers of models' ages.) But the most concrete results to emerge from the Washington conference all relate to -- surprise! -- cracking down on already illegal child pornography.
There's a simple reason for that: "Child porn is evil" is the only position that all parties involved in the Washington summit share. Thus the headlines emerging from the event: "Internet Child-Pornography Peddlers, Sex Predators Targeted by White House " (Wall Street Journal), "Gore Announces Efforts to Patrol Internet" (New York Times' CyberTimes). Major service providers like AOL are now agreeing to work with the government in prosecuting child-porn offenders. And the Justice Department is providing support for a hot line to report instances of child pornography (ironically, it's only reachable by telephone -- e-mail service is slated to begin next year).
That's all well and good, but anyone who thinks it will forestall the continuing efforts of congressmen and conservatives to pass new censorship laws is kidding herself. If anything, these headlines reinforce the vague notion in the popular mind that pornography on the Internet must somehow equal child pornography -- and that the main issue for anyone concerned about kids' welfare online is to root out this menace.
Mainstream parents who are neither Net activists nor "family values" advocates have a legitimate desire to keep their kids from, say, stumbling on an "X-rated Babes!" site when they are looking for information about "Babe," the movie about the cute talking pig. Solving that problem is fiendishly difficult, though, and no techno-fix -- neither the software filters you can install yourself nor the industry-wide ratings systems that have been proposed -- is guaranteed to work in every case.
Filters, like all software, are technically fallible, and even if they can be made to function properly, there's still the question of who rates sites and decides whether they are "family-friendly" or not. It's pretty easy to see that hard-core pornography Web sites (like those Andrew Leonard wrote about this week in "Pornutopia Lost") aren't going to pass most Americans' test of what's appropriate for a young child. But what about sites with safe-sex information for teenagers? Or news stories about pornography?
To understand the scope of this problem you need to go beyond the cursory reports in most of the media -- or even the more thorough features, like Amy Harmon's Monday New York Times article -- and visit a couple of Web sites. First, look at a study by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which found that one filter program, Net Shepherd, actually screens out over 90 percent of the Web. Then take a look at Net Shepherd's courteous rebuttal to the critique.
The most interesting thing here is the company's description of the "rating community" of 1,500 "Internet Explorers" who, it says, have now rated over a million Web pages. The question begged here is, how? Are they glancing at a home page and checking off "Not Suitable For Children," or reading every page on each site? And what kind of standards are they using? Are they the sort of people you'd want deciding what your child can and can't read -- or the kind who might try to outlaw G|nter Grass' "The Tin Drum" as kiddie porn?
The "give people the tools" technological fix always sounds great, but in the end there are always human beings making ratings calls. And human beings still have a tough time telling the difference between, say, "child pornography" and "children and pornography."